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Thursday, October 21, 2021

Column: Unconscious habits

I was at the café in Borders the other day, where I saw two girls at a table discussing life over a cup of coffee. One girl firmly clutched her coffee between both hands, leaning over the table and looking intently into the eyes of her female companion.

I notice that some girls do this a lot. If they’re out getting coffee with a friend, they’ll sit erect while grasping their paper cup with the same care that one might use to cradle a hamster or some other prized, fragile rodent pet. And then they’ll give their friend complete attention.

Maybe she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. Attentiveness and impeccable posture might be largely unrealized habits, performed without the desire for gain or reward.

Or maybe she does seek gain or reward. But “ulterior motives” belong in another column. Subscribing to the belief that said girl does not perform these actions consciously, I segue into the topic for this week’s column: unconscious habits.

Friends and family are typically the best observers of your foibles. That being said, my dad’s unconscious habits include muttering, whispering or hissing to himself when he’s either A) reading something, B) trying to remember something or C) under the impression that he’s alone when, really, one of his daughters has crept into the room to scold him for this creepy tendency.

One of the first times my sister became aware of our dad’s muttered monologues, she snapped at him, aghast: “Stop it dad. You sound like you’re speaking parseltongue.”

On “How I Met Your Mother,” Robin tells Ted he has a “naked lady” laugh: a certain type of chuckle that he uses only after having just seen, or thought about, a woman in the nude.

Not all unconscious habits are cute and endearing. Some of them are a bit embarrassing.

For instance, people sometimes say I look distraught when I concentrate. The inadvertent expression I get on my face when I’m either A) focused, B) spaced out or C) sleep deprived, vacillates between mildly perturbed to downright furious.

While some unconscious habits are embarrassing, others are self-defeating, such as indulging. Psychologist Dolly Mittal found that individuals are especially likely to engage in unconscious eating while watching TV, as the television’s mind-numbing effect makes it more difficult for people to recall how much they have consumed throughout the span of the show.

“If I know about unconscious habits in principle, does it alter my unconscious habits much?” said Jeremy Sherman, Ph.D. in evolutionary psychology and blogger for Psychology Today. “If I spend 40 hours a week thinking about my unconscious, does that make my behaviors a lot less automatic or a little?”

The answer is, it depends both on how much the habit irks you and on how much it disrupts functioning. Subconscious thoughts can get us in trouble if we share a room and divulge embarrassing secrets in our sleep; so if you have a habit you’re ashamed of, psychologists recommend that you address not the habit, but its underlying cause.

Last week I wrote about classical conditioning, where we learn to associate an object with a negative experience, thus adopting an unconscious habit as a defense mechanism against the aversive stimulus. Whether that reaction is actually an effective coping mechanism or not is another matter entirely. But going by this line of thinking, we develop unconscious habits as a result of a specific event.

For instance, maybe my dad speaks parseltongue because he had a troubling dream one night where Voldemort threatened him. Though he may not even remember the dream, his unconscious does, and it wants to make sure he keeps communing with Lord Voldemort in order to ensure survival.

Ted’s distinct “naked lady laugh” from “How I Met Your Mother” may have been born as the love child of awkwardness and fascination, having formed at a moment when Ted felt simultaneously astounded and uncomfortable.

That girl at Borders might clutch her coffee cup so tightly because she’s let many things go in her life that she wishes she could’ve held on to; for instance, a hamster that was dear to her as a child once slipped from her fumbling hands onto the floor.

Far-fetched as the explanations sound, a psychologist will say that many unconscious habits have early origins tied to an emotional component.

So once you’ve uncovered its origin, from then on make a conscious effort to pay attention every time the habit manifests itself in your actions. This is if it’s a detrimental habit. But because many of our unconscious habits are endearing aspects of our identities, for the most part it doesn’t matter if we’re unaware of them. You’re cute! Embrace it.

And next time you’re in Borders, scan the café-goers for that attentive girl who holds onto her coffee cup as if its life depended on it.

ELENI STEPHANIDES wore the scary concentrated face for a good portion of the time while working on this column at Delta of Venus. If you have a similar slightly embarrassing unconscious habit, share with her at estephanides@ucdavis.edu

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